London bans Uber for having hidden feature on the app

Uber has not had a great 2017. The embattled company, which was valued at around$70 billion by private investors according to a New York Times report published in March, has faced a string of scandals since the year began.

The company's former CEO was caught in a row with a driver over the company's low rates - a problem which it has been consistently criticised for. Co-founder Travis Kalanick, who has since stepped down, was caught on tape in a heated argument with a driver.

Kalanick's response was seen as tone-deaf and harsh in the face of the driver's emotional concerns about the financial pressure he was under, and the footage did no favours for Uber's reputation amid concerns that Uber drivers are not being treated fairly by his company.

In addition to Kalanick's response to this driver, Uber was also criticised by former employee Susan Fowler. Fowler is an engineer who left the company in December 2016, and proceeded to write a detailed blog post about what she saw as a problematic company culture.

She cited sexism and aggressive competition as some of the factors which made Uber a difficult professional environment to function in, describing scenarios where people actively and openly undermined senior colleagues in order to replace them - a stark contrast to the inclusive image often presented of the firm.

alt Credit: Uber

It seemed like every manager was fighting their peers and attempting to undermine their direct supervisor so that they could have their direct supervisor’s job. No attempts were made by these managers to hide what they were doing: They boasted about it in meetings, told their direct reports about it, and the like.

As if these concerns regarding how Uber treats its company staff and its drivers weren't enough, Uber was the subject of an expose by the New York Times which revealed it was using a hidden feature to circumvent regulation. Through this seemingly secret feature, the paper argued that the app was avoiding being monitored by regulators.

This move is thought to have been directly enforced by the top brass at the firm, and has now been linked to yet another piece of bad news received by the firm - the suspension of its operating license in London.

alt Credit: Business of Apps

The program in question used a tool called Greyball, which collected information from the app in order to identify frequent riders who hailed cabs near government buildings. This way, new and frequent users in such locations were flagged as potential regulators seeking to inspect the app.

This flagging process was called "greyballing". "Greyballed" individuals were shown a different version of the app to regular customers, including "ghost cars" which were not actually in the area. This way, such officials found it difficult to hail cabs.

Not only were such individuals identified using the app, Uber employees also used social media to confirm their identities and reports stated that some drivers who picked up "greyballed" customers who managed to slip through the cracks were contacted and asked to terminate these trips.

These methods were used in addition to around 12 criteria used to identify customers as officials. Uber allegedly used these tactics to avoid inspection in several cities in the US, as well as in France, Australia, China and South Korea.

alt Source: Getty

Uber defended this technology, ostensibly part of a wider VTOS program - or "Violation Of Terms Of Use". Such technology, it was claimed, functioned to weed out problematic customers who were not using the app properly.

The company also claimed that the ability to show different customers different versions of the app also helped to test out new functions among smaller customer segments before rolling them out across the app as a whole. In addition to this, safety was listed as a reason for using the VTOS system.

This program denies ride requests to users who are violating our terms of service — whether that’s people aiming to physically harm drivers, competitors looking to disrupt our operations, or opponents who collude with officials on secret ‘stings’ meant to entrap drivers.

This technology is used to hide the standard city app view for individual riders, enabling Uber to show that same rider a different version. It’s been used for many purposes, for example: the testing of new features by employees; marketing promotions; fraud prevention; to protect our partners from physical harm; and to deter riders using the app in violation of our terms of service.

Uber has since said that it would work on preventing the use of this technology against regulators, but also mentioned that the process would not be a speedy one, due to “the way our systems are configured”. In response to this, Transport for London (TfL), the London body in charge of public transportation in the British capital, has hit back at the organisation.

TfL cited "greyballing" as a reason for suspending Uber's license to operate in the city. The company's “approach to explaining the use of Greyball in London, software that could be used to block regulatory bodies from gaining full access to the app and prevent officials from undertaking regulatory or law enforcement duties” was deemed unsatisfactory and a key factor in the announcement of the ban against the cab-hailing company.

Uber has a right to appeal this ban, and can continue to operate in London throughout this process.

H/T: New York Times

  • September 23rd 2017
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